From our partner in Istanbul: « Art as emergency »

Speech from Ekmel Ertan, September 1st 2016 – Paris.

Art as Emergency

Dismeasure & Minority

I want to start with two concepts by sociologist Pascal Gielen. The first is “dismeasurement” actually introduced by Virno and put in context by Gielen. The second is art as minority. Referring to the words of cultural sociologist Pierre Bourdieu Gielen says that: “[…] contemporary art always tries to introduce a ‘dismeasure’ (Virno, 2009) in the ordinary measure of a culture we are used to live in. […] Precisely because it seeks a dismeasure in both the art world and society, contemporary art always occupies the position of the minority or heterodoxy” (Gielen 2013).

Later on, Gielen recalls sociologist Niklas Luhmann’s notion of art and writes: ”When Luhmann asks himself what role art plays in contemporary society […] Luhmann concludes that art creates a ‘sense of possibility’. ‘Nothing is either necessary or impossible’ or ‘Everything that is, can also always be otherwise’, is the message that art brings to contemporary society (Luhmann, 1995).” We can assume that this ‘sense of possibility’ is the dismeasure that art creates.

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Art is political

In our contemporary culture we assume that art is political. Today the world globally politicized like never before; ecological activism, political activism, local revolts related to actual problems, debates around transnational crisis alongside the many wars and terrorist acts. Therefore we would expect the dismeasure that art creates would be political.

My questions

Here comes my questions initiated by these to concepts by Gielen. Can art has such a dismeasuring power in the current global chaos we live in? Is art really political, should it be and can it be political? Especially considering the other activist movement and local grass-rooted revolts, what weight art has among them or in collaboration with them? If the definition of art is firmly related to “dismeasure” than are the others that also dismeasure –point to other possibilities- art or is there a relation between art and others closer then we assume? And relatedly; Is art a minority? Which art is minority; can it be an advantage or is it an apparent disadvantage in order to have a desirable effect in society?

My quick answers to those questions are: currently, no, art cannot dismeasure and yes, it is minority! I will not try to deeper answers to them, instead try to draw an image that leads me to my quick answers.

Public domain

Let us lay out some fundamentals. The very essential requirement for art and culture is the public domain. Even before the discussions around dismeasure or minority, art has to be seen, shared and discussed. Hence public domain is the ontological ground for art. It has to be public.

Public domain is also where the democracy is formed. Without an open and free public domain, where minorities can find legal frameworks to obtain participatory power we cannot safeguard democracy.

Neoliberal and neo-national ideologies

Pascal Gielen states “democracy has no foundation; neither god, ideology nor scientific positivism can be foundation for it” (Gielen 2013). But today our democracies based on both neo-liberal and neo-national ideologies. Gielen explains how these two work together perfectly covering each other’s undemocratic tendencies and, even strengthen them.

State of emergency

While we already have a democracy problem through the foundational presumptions of neo-liberalism and neo-nationalism, another political tool “the state of emergency” enters the scene inevitably and legitimizes them.

The state of emergency is the situation that the politics overwrite the law with the law and paradoxically stays legal and still democracy. According to political theorist Carl Schmitt it is temporary, not normal therefore legal; but Agamben specifies that the state of emergency is the new state, the new norm and it is permanent.

Therefore the current state of the capitalism, where neoliberalism and neo-nationalism as the ideologies and the state of emergency as the political tool frames the condition that we have to work in is not temporary or will not change for better at least in a visible future.

Democracy as an ideal

Today democracy remains an ideal; by this I do not mean a “utopia” but an “ideal” that has been achieved at different levels in different places and times and to be achieved again.

But it is not possible to find a democracy even close to the weakest definition of perfection. European democracy showed its imperfect face when it confronted the refugee. Like the conditions that create refugees, how they are welcomed is also a democracy problem. Once more through the refugees we understand that the democracy should be considered as a global concept, a global ideal. This ideal is under threat in such a world connected in every means; not only by communication technologies but also effectually by neo-liberal politics, which actually create the treat.

We are assuming a strong relation among neoliberal and neo-national ideologies, state of emergency on one side democracy, public domain and cultural commons on the other. As the neoliberal and neo-national ideologies gain power we lose the democratic ground and essentially the public domain.

Public domain: public space

In the countries where a wild capitalism rules, The state is shrinking in accordance with the neoliberal principals and reduces its operations and effect in general and especially in the contemporary art and culture field where the dismeasuring features of art could have been cultivated. Eventually corporations and wealthy families enter in this field that the state left. Privatization in cultural field created hegemony with the new lifestyle and habits that is programmatically introduced and form a cultural scene -so called- above classes, politics and ideologies, which is a reflection of global authoritarian populist politics. Therefore they supposed that the art is not political; the taking over the art from the states domination was rescuing it from the politics and frees it. But eventually that handed it over to control of the market where neoliberal logic rules. This happened in ex-soviet countries or in the countries that switched to new liberal policies with sudden socio-political changes.

The public domain is under siege by neoliberalism and being privatized step by step for decades. We are loosing access to the cultural commons as well as the natural ones through the privatization of the public domain. This case is not as visible in Europe yet as in other many places where neoliberalism rules within weak or non-existent social infrastructures. Ex-Soviet countries in Balkans are among those places; Vesna Copic, (then Head of the Cultural Policy Department at the Ministry of Culture, Republic of Slovania) writes in 1999 “Introduction of market principals and privatization encouraged individualism while at the same time it damaged social cohesion and social responsibility” (Copic, 1999) After the regime-change, these countries lived a quick liberalization which had visible effects in the field of art and culture as well. But if even the privatization of Louvre put into words then it is not a misestimation to expect further privatization initiatives in EU countries too. On the other hand principals of privatization is in operation by other means as well like forcing public institutions to create income. That is another form of privatization and  surrender to neoliberal logic, where audience turns into client and culture object or service into commodity.

On one side the terror caused by global imperialism, which is also another aspect of neo-liberalism and neo-national discourses and security politics on the other, also narrow the public domain and support the privatization that creates controlled –and paid- security islands.

Privatized public spaces, where interactions among people as well as people and environment controlled and regulated naturalize the state of emergency policies. Those places are in a constant state of control for your physical and cultural safety!.

Public space has always its own limitations regarding the societal and political context, be it religious, traditional or ideological. Nevertheless the artist herself can decide the tone and form of her criticism in the –modernist- public space. Private public spaces on the contrary are controlled by possessor; the artist can act only in an explicitly given frame. Although private cultural institutions try to be more flexible  and liberal since they want to be respected internationally, they also have to go along with the local authorities and the public opinion which is the figure of majority.

One other mission of privatized cultural spaces is to tame the art and culture scene and frame the expectations. They are not meeting the fundamental principal of the public space, which is bringing diversities together. Those cultural venues are sharing a certain class identity. The architecture, interior design, graphical identity and their self-representation as well as chic and expensive cafes inside, draws a frame that defines what an art institution should be. Those institutions became the mediums for art consumption and they define the way as well as the type of the art to consume. I believe in most case artworks loose their individual stories, social importance and true artistic meaning, but turn out as objects of a temporal art history in which they can only find a context to let them meaningful

Let the institutions function as they know and as they permitted. That is necessary of course to keep upper middle and wealthy classes still in touch with art and of course for keeping some sort of bases accessible and available like keeping the notion of art still discussed. But especially private institutions are not reliable actors for defending democracy and democratic rights of the minorities, because their priority is not to keep the public domain open and free but creating social capital through such a simulacra. If we believe that art dismeasures and is political, we should look somewhere else.

The other components of public domain: public money

Public domain is primary for democracy as well as for art and culture. Public domain covers many; including pubic spaces of course but also public opinion and public money among others. The Public domain in which art may dismeasure consists and needs all those. Take the flow of the money, which is actually controlled by neo-liberalism where the market logic rules. With the requirements of fitting into the market, how can artist produce a dismeasuring effect? An Artist needs money to create, to produce, to distribute her work but not only this she also needs money to live a decent life. But we all know as operators in the art and culture scene, in the given conditions of today’s neo liberal policies the entire corpus artists who are not part of the market are leading a precarious life.

The other components of public domain: public money and institutions

On the other hand when public or semi-public money intervene through foundations, national or multi-national institutions, the rules are very similar to the market within the logic of neo-liberalism. Artist has to compete to get granted in the Darwinist approach of neo-liberalism. She has to prepare her work, application or project while she is also working in either the world’s least paid sector –namely art and culture sector- or teach at a university part time or do other things to live. The artists, who can maintain these conditions, can indeed become minorities!

The other components of public domain: public opinion

Secondly take the public opinion; neo-nationalist policies shape the domain, where certain discourses be it identity-based discriminations, conservative and belief-based discourses or covert or evident hate speeches dominates. Artists should raise their voice in the midst of such a threatening climate of opinions, unfortunately in the majority of the world today. Europe might be in a better shape today but should be ready for the worse to come because the democracy crisis is global one, like ecological crisis. The rise of right wing populist discourses in all around Europe is a signifier of this threatening climate of public opinions.

Act now

When we were young communists once upon a time, we used to discuss if complications -take any from gender relations, ethical issues to education or others- should have been solved before or after the revolution. In our case there is no visible revolution so we have to solve them now. Then to create a global, transnational art and culture scene out of the market seems to be a solution. That means, creating a global and transnational public domain out of neo-liberal and neo-national threats and emergency states. This I believe means “out of capitalism”. I do not know what is the other to replace it but including the financial models we have to look other options or find the other means out of market. May be we should start using bitcoin! There I understand the technology, which connects us as well as creates other possibilities, as a part of the solution: by considering the technology not as a tool of capitalism but as the knowledge of the commons.


Hence we come to independents: independent artists, activists, artist groups, independent institutions, and any forms of autonomy, which are the only chances to dismeasure life for an open and truly free public domain. The mood in these fields varies between two ends. Under the ongoing state of emergency as the events become more and more dramatic even the artists find what they do irrelevant and useless! They feel impotent and think that what ever they do will not dismeasure anything. But in principal, artists deeply believe what can save us and the society is the dismeasure that only art can create to reveal the reality.

Postmodern is an understanding of the current state of capitalism with a discourse, which also lays the stones for its further steps. Therefore post-modern condition where we find the problems is also where we should look for the solutions. The distribution, decentralization, fragmentation, autonomy, network and communication are some of the keywords that define the state as they may the keywords of the possible solution as well!

In the art and culture scene we need to increase the number of local small groupings that penetrate in the society and develop the networking channels to increase the discussion and co-working platforms. We should think of the new public domain as a web of transnationally connected local nodes, that overlaps and extends the existing one as a new layer over it. To provide this what is more important then talking the same “language” is the protocols that make the communication possible and continue among the minorities over the network channels. Art and culture workers should create new protocols to understand each other and more importantly the people and societies in their diversity, as well as new protocols to collaborate and to make.

But should not we also give a new voice to our old modernist expectations as an opposition to a pure postmodernist acceptance? Because isn’t what we are expecting art to achieve, a modernist ideal? We still believe as Saul Bellow said in his Nobel lecture in 1976, before we were postmodern, that “Only art penetrates … the seeming realities of this world. »(Bellow,1976).

We should claim the cultural commons beside the natural ones. We should force the transforming institutions to protect the fundamental values of modernism that we still need. We should force the private institutions to serve people and put the ethics in front of market values. We should reject what the logic of neoliberalism and privatization force us to accept but claim the art and culture cannot be privatized, art and culture are our commons!

Art is emergency.


Acknowledgement: Ekmel Ertan like to thank Nafiz Akşehirlioğlu for the discussions and final editing of the text.



Ekmel Ertan works as artist, curator and educator. He is the founder and artistic director of İstanbul based amberPlatform, which is a research and production platform on art and new technologies.

Ertan received his BSc degree in Electronics / Communication Engineering from the Technical University of Istanbul and his MA degree on Interactive Media Design from Yıldız Technical University. He worked as a design and test engineer on telecommunication systems in Turkey, Germany and Belgium. Since 2006 he has been teaching at Sabancı University.

All drawings by Elizabeth Saint-Jalmes.







Gielen, P. (2013), Art in Less Democratic Times. Retrieved from

Gielen’s references:

Luhmann, N. (1995), Die Kunst der Gesellschaft. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.

Gielen, P. and Lavaert, S. (2009), The Dismeasure of Art. An interview with Paulo Virno, in: Gielen, P. and De Bruyne, P. (eds.), Being an Artist in Post- Fordist Times. Rotterdam: NAi-Publishers: 17-44.

Bourdieu, P. (1977), La production de la croyance: contribution à une économie de biens symboliques, in: Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 13.

Aysun , Esra A. (2013), Looking at the Cultural Entrepreneurship in Istanbul. Current Issues, Supplement of the 130th issue of Sanat Dünyamız magazine

Bellow, Saul. (1976), Nobel Lecture. Retrieved from

Engdahl F. William, (2016) What is Fethulla Gülen?. Off Guardian

Čopič, Vesna. (1999) Privatisation and culture: how to separate cultural policy from the provision of culture. Retrieved from on 14/09/2016

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